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Human Rights Watch is calling for the Libyan government to drop charges against 12 men who face possible death sentences for planning a peaceful demonstration in Tripoli. Two other men have not been heard from since their arrest nearly six months ago in connection with the case.

"For all its promises of better behaviour and improved ties with the world, Libya still imprisons those who express alternative political views, and it has 'disappeared' others," says Human Rights Watch.

The men were planning to hold a peaceful demonstration on 17 February 2007 to commemorate the first anniversary of a violent clash between protesters and police in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. Last year, demonstrators stormed the Italian consulate in Benghazi, in response to statements by an Italian government minister defending the publication of the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. The police used force to disperse the crowd, killing at least 11.

The two "disappeared" men are 'Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi, a fourth-year medical student, and Jum'a Boufayed, brother of Dr. Idris Boufayed, the demonstration's main organiser and staunch critic of Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi. Neither man has been seen since their arrests in mid-February, nor have the Libyan authorities provided information on their whereabouts.

The 12 men are on trial for planning to overthrow the government, possession of arms, and meeting with an official from a foreign government. They denied in an August hearing the first two charges but admitted some of them met a U.S. embassy official ahead of the planned rally.

Human Rights Watch says the charges against the men could carry the death penalty, yet none of the 14 had advocated violence.

Idris Boufayed lived for 16 years in exile in Switzerland but returned to Libya to visit in 2006. He was jailed in November for writing critical letters published on a Libyan opposition website.

Another defendant, Jamal Ahmad al-Haji, is a recognised writer and government critic. In an article he wrote a few days before his arrest, he called for "freedom, democracy, a constitutional state, and law." Al-Haji holds Danish citizenship, which the Libyan government has refused to recognise. The authorities have also declined Danish government requests to visit him.

The appeal follows Libya's release last month of six Bulgarian medics jailed for eight years for allegedly infecting Libyan children with HIV. The medics said they were tortured into admitting the crime. According to the Associated Press (AP), their release last month boosted Libya's ties with Europe - a key goal of al-Qadhafi who is seeking to improve relations with the West.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch:
- RSF, Libya Annual Report 2007:
- AP:
- al-Haji's article (Arabic):
(21 August 2007)

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